The Parenting Blame Game

Scripture obviously ought to be a guiding tool for our life. In reading the stories of the bible, we learn about who God is, what God has done, and what God will do. In many ways, scripture provides the “answer” to questions we might have. You’ve probably heard this terminology used before!

But one odd thing about our bible is that it doesn’t always give us specific answers. For instance, do we know everything that is going on in the mind of a character? Do we always know the backstory? Do we fully know someone’s intentions?

Some people take issue with ambiguity, but if you ask me, this is one reason I find the bible so fascinating! We must truly study it in order to glean lessons from stories like those from 1 Samuel.

With that said, Eli is one of those characters where we don’t exactly have clearcut answers. Was he a great father? Did he utterly fail? To be honest, it’s unclear. To recap this character from the beginning of the book:

  • Eli is the high priest of Israel in Shiloh. People come there yearly to make sacrifices. Eli assures Hannah she will have a son.
  • Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They were bad dudes. The bible calls them “scoundrels” and states they had no regard for the Lord. These two troubled sons took advantage of people in grotesque and corrupt ways. Eli confronts the sinful sons and warns them of God’s judgment. They don’t listen.
  • Eli mentors Samuel over the years, giving Israel its first prophet. Samuel realizes God is calling him in the middle of the night, thanks to Eli’s advice.
  • Samuel prophesies the house of Eli will be destroyed for the sins of the sons. In some readings, it is not clear if Eli himself also will be cursed, too, or if his offspring simply bear the brunt of the impending doom. The sons die in battle and after Eli finds out, he falls over, breaking his neck and dies, too.
  • It is unclear as to whether future generations suffered more from a divine “curse.” Some of Eli’s ancestors die young. But some biblical traditions state that people like Jeremiah and Ezekiel and descendants of this family line. So it seems to me as though Eli’s history is not entirely hopeless or corrupt.

Some bible commentators and pastors criticize Eli and essentially blame him for the actions of his sons. By extension, the same people might blame parents of lost children today. You’ve heard phrases like these before…

  • Eli should have done more.” And today, “That parent should have done more.”
  • “That child must have learned it from the mother/father.”
  • “Some kids just weren’t raised right.”
  • “Well they clearly failed at parenting.”

So who is exactly to blame when children turn away from God?

I’ll be the first to admit this is an incredibly dicey issue. For starters, I don’t have children yet and don’t know what it’s like to parent. I also realize it is easy to judge others and put people down without truly understanding a family’s situation. We so often want an explanation for why someone turned out “bad” that we rush to judge the parent almost immediately. We often forget that every individual must make the choice for him or herself on whether to follow Jesus or not. Children turn into youth, and eventually turn into adults. We gradually take ownership of our lives and make impactful decisions through free will.

I know many parents–and yes, even pastors–who did everything “right” yet still struggled with wayward children. What’s a parent to do when she or he earnestly follows God, yet witnesses children turn away from faith?

Despite my lack of experience in the parenting arena, I feel confident in my beliefs on this matter. Rather than playing the “blame game” about lost and rebellious children, I think God calls us to something different. It is easy to point fingers and wash our own hands, but I don’t think we ought to be doing much blame in the first place. We need more understanding and compassion instead of condemnation and judgment.

In the future, it might be worth considering past mistakes and asking God for healing where someone may have failed as a parent. But in the midst of trauma, the blame game doesn’t help at all.

Your friend who is dealing with a struggling family member doesn’t need to be shamed or scolded. For now, they need prayer, help, and support. They need to know that they are not alone, and that you can be a Christian friend to them during their hour of need.


Strange Christianity

A major point of my sermon yesterday was to follow Hannah’s example of being so devoted to God that other people might think we are crazy. While this point might sound uncomfortable, I think Christianity in the 21st century could use a dose of “strangeness.” Tragically, Christians often behave no differently that how our world operates.

One of my favorite books I read in seminary was A Peculiar People by Rodney Clapp. The title is based off 1 Peter 2:9 (“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people…”). This book taught me the importance of always seeking to be peculiar in how I live my faith, as well as encouraging congregations to do the same. Following Jesus always looks strange compared to the surrounding culture. Here’s how the book opens, giving an illustration on how we often treat Christianity like a cruise ship chaplain:

Priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen tells a significant story about what it means to be a Christian amid the late twentieth-century ruins of Christendom. Years ago, Nouwen was chaplain of a Holland-American cruise line. He stood one day on the bridge of a Dutch ship making its was though a thick fog into the port of Rotterdam. “The fog was so thick, in fact, that the steersman could not even see the bow of the ship. The captain, carefully listening to a radar station operator who was explaining his position between the other ships, walked nervously up and down the bridge.”

In the process of his nervous pacing, the captain collided with the ship’s chaplain. Adrift in anxiety as well as fog, the captain cursed the chaplain and told him to stay out of the way. “But,” says Nouwen, “When I was ready to run away, filled with feelings for incompetence and guilt, he came back and said: ‘Why don’t you just stay around. This might be the only time I need you.’”

Musing, Nouwen elaborates on how the experience is all too typical of ministerial—and, I would add, lay Christians—frustrations, on or off an ocean liner.

There was a time, not too long ago, when [Christians] felt like captains running our own ships, with a great sense of power and self-confidence. Now we are stranding in the way. That is our lonely position. We are powerless, on the side, not taken very seriously when the weather is fine.

So here stands the Christian, chaplain on the ship with a destination sure and true, even if the surrounding fog sometimes gets pretty dense. The captain, the real mover and shaker in our world, wants the Christian out of the way. Let him, let her, goof off with the deckhands. Let the Christian divert and console these and other inconsequential people. And maybe, in a tight spot, let the Christian launch some prayers or perform some other hocus-pocus which at least will have the effect of calming and keeping the masses under control. But for crying out loud, keep the Christian off the bridge, out of the map room, away from the wheel. And when the ship has docked, don’t let the religious fanatic in the corporate boardroom or the congressional chamber. There’s work to be done in the real world.

I think this metaphor is very revealing. Many times we grow accustomed to our surroundings, mirroring the sinfulness we see in the world. Following God takes the backseat, in exchange for other things like popularity, social connections, Facebook, money, politics, and so forth. Christianity is about as useful as a cruise ship chaplain… Surely other things are more important in life than all this God-stuff!

Instead of following the example of Hannah in 1 Samuel for our sermon and dedicating children to the Lord, we frequently dedicate children to ourselves, our family reputation, worldly success, or a sports league. We forget that the best thing a Christian parent could ever share with a child is the love of Jesus. Everything else ought to be secondary, but we mess up the order.

Instead of genuinely asking ourselves what would Jesus do in a situation, we follow our gut reactions, cussing out the person who insults us, hitting back harder if we are attacked, and responding with negativity when others are pessimistic about the world around us. We end up no better than non-Christians.

Instead of pursuing Christlike values such as self-sacrifice, love, and generosity, we tend to promote ourselves, put others down, and hoard resources. Jesus clearly calls us to be strange in our dealings, always following in his footsteps. Yet sometimes we assume Jesus shouldn’t be taken too seriously, or that Jesus was just speaking figuratively.

If you ask me, I think we all could use a dose of peculiarity. Perhaps if other people start to think that we are crazy, maybe that’s the best evidence to show we are actually following Jesus.

A Tale of Two Queens: Vashti and Esther

I’ve preached before many times about how our world is particularly unkind towards women. This applies for sermons on issues like lust and purity, where our culture regularly tolerates objectification and assault. This observation also applies for sermons on gifts of the Holy Spirit, as many Christian denominations today do not believe women can lead others. (For the record, Methodists believe God calls absolutely everyone!).

The same unfortunate, sexist reality was also the case in biblical times. Adam Hamilton, a UMC pastor, once remarked on how his young daughter was reading bible stories at a young age. She had two questions after reading stories from books like Genesis: “Dad, why is everyone so mean to each other?” and “Why don’t many of the women have names?” In scripture we often find profound and shocking examples of our own human brokenness. People are mean, and we struggle with the sin of sexism.

Back in the time of Esther, women did not have much power at all. There have undoubtedly been many queens throughout ancient history, but chances are if you weren’t a member of the royal court, as a woman you had little say over your life trajectory. You were property. People valued you for the potential to bear children. Husbands, relatives, or masters basically owned you. (As a side note, this cultural observation is why I think the bible itself is so revolutionary. God actually uses women to accomplish greater purposes of salvation… Think Sarah, Hannah, Deborah, Esther, and Mary, just to name a few!).

We even find examples of oppression with the royal class of women in this book, too, particularly Vashti and Esther. They lived in severely broken circumstances.

Vashti is a fascinating minor character in Esther. Sometimes people dismiss Vashti, arguing that she is selfish or hopelessly disobedient. I think there’s more to her character than these shallow dismissals. The story of Esther begins with King Xerxes wanting to parade his wife Vashti before a bunch of drunken royal officials. Vashti stands up for herself and refuses to comply. She rejects the oppressive customs of the day and openly defies King Xerxes’ orders. Unfortunately for her, this leads to Xerxes deciding to choose a new queen, setting the plot of Esther into motion.

Queen Esther, on the other hand, takes a different approach. She gradually gains the king’s favor. She decides to work within the royal system and hopefully forge a better outcome. Along with the help of Mordecai, she uses the mechanisms of power to help save the Jews. She gains the trust of an unstable king and uses this newfound power to help other people.

These are two greatly different approaches to lead and fight against injustice. Vashti was much more confrontational and rejected mistreatment outright. Esther tolerated mistreatment to some degree, using the political system to help others in the bigger picture.

Saint Esther icon (courtesy)

Which way is better… Vashti or Esther? I’m not exactly sure there’s an easy answer to this question. Either might be appropriate, depending on the circumstances.

When it comes to sinfulness itself, perhaps we could learn a thing or two from Vashti: Don’t tolerate it one bit! Too often we decide to simply live with sin in our life, whether that be lust, greed, dishonesty, violence, or materialism. We may struggle with compromising our values and ignoring sin. Truth be told, we are better off simply getting up and walking away, instead of trying to play a game with evil.

And then there are other cases where helping other people involves a long, complex process, just like Esther’s story. Esther saw the importance of the bigger picture, and believed that she could create a better outcome by working through the systems of power.

We sometimes forget about Queen Vashti because she isn’t exactly a main character in the story. But there’s still a lesson to be learned, even from minor characters that might apply to our lives today.

Sleep and Darkness in Biblical Times

Our conception of things often changes over time. What we assume today might not be the case back in biblical times! Believe it or not, sleep is a perfect example of this kind of historical-cultural issue.

Nowadays, we usually view sleep as a means to an end. We sleep in order to feel rested for work the following day. If we don’t get sleep, then that throws off the balance of our life. We yearn for more hours in the day, hoping to squeeze in enough hours of rest to offset busy schedules.

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In the ancient world, however, sleep was not always the most “restful” sort of idea. In Greek mythology thousands of years ago, the god Hypnos was a devious sort of figure (as you can guess, we get the word hypnotize from him!). Hypnos would allegedly lure humans and gods with sleep, eventually overpowering them. His brother was Thanatos, or the Greek god of death. In fact, in writings like Homer’s Iliad, it is Hypnos who ushers people into the underworld. So in the ancient world, sleep isn’t exactly the most calming or nourishing thing. Sleep could actually lead you to death!

With these ancient traditions, many people assumed that daytime was the safest possible period of the day. Night was filled with uncertainty. You literally cannot see the in the darkness. Betrayal, deceit, and disaster can happen at night. And death can come, too–think of someone who falls asleep but doesn’t wake up the following morning.

So back in biblical times, sleep often was connected to death. People did not understand the science behind sleeping or death itself, so many noted the similarities to dying as well as falling asleep. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul refers to the dead as “those who have fallen asleep.” This clearly reflects the logic of the day (and Paul offers a profound, countercultural message of hope regarding death–but that’s another blog post for another day!).

With all this said, Acts 20 has an interesting meaning when it comes to sleep and darkness. Many people assume that God cannot work in the darkness. After all, we find many examples of how God is associated with light, while evil is associated with darkness.

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But the author of Acts radically subverts this assumption. God is not limited to the daytime. In fact, the apostles are doing their work in the middle of the night! God is actually using the darkness to bring about light. Paul preaches all through the night, and even whens someone falls asleep, falls, and dies, Paul raises the young boy back to life.

For years, many assumed that daytime was only associated with God’s work. Truth be told, we also have this assumption, too. We frequently think God cannot work in a certain situation. We write off other people as “hopeless” or “too far gone.” We don’t think that hope could ever grow in darkness.

That’s not what we find in scripture. Even though you walk through the darkest valleys, God is with you. You don’t have to be afraid. This passage teaches us that God can and will work, even in moments of utter darkness.

The Issue of Debt

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For our sermon on tithing yesterday, I emphasized how committing to a monthly tithe can encourage you to think critically about your finances. Debt is another issue that often could be included in this conversation, too. Many times, because of circumstances of owing a lot of money, people feel utterly unable to be generous, whether that be a massive housing payment, student loans, or credit card bills.

In Proverbs 22:7, we find a profound thought on money: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” This is quite a verse to unpack! If you’re familiar with the financial literacy corner of the internet, you know that many figures like Dave Ramsey take this verse very seriously. There’s a rather sizable movement of Christians today addressing the issue of debt and how to get out of it in order to build wealth and increase financial generosity.

When you think about it, this verse from Proverbs really can teach us a lot for today. We often struggle with a “you only live once” kind of mindset. We may also think that money will buy us happiness. Likewise, we quickly develop a dysfunctional relationship with money, trying to buy our way into contentment. And many times, we can even feel hopeless because of everything. Debt can become an idol distracting us from God.

Consider this example from the book The Boglehead’s Guide to Investing. This finance book essentially outlines three categories of spending and saving:

  1. Bill and Betty “Borrower” have a debt mentality. The Borrower family eagerly finances their lifestyle through debt. Cash buying is almost unheard of, as they can easily put everything on a credit card. They “rob” tomorrow to pay for today. A approach like this often leads to dire outcomes, once bills become due.
  2. Chad and Cathy “Consumer” have a paycheck mentality. The Consumer family looks at the monthly payment and decides whether or not they can afford something. This is clearly a step up from borrowing absolutely everything, but the Borrowers are literally one paycheck away from financial disaster.
  3. Ken and Kim “Keeper” have a savings mentality. The Keeper family prioritizes budgeting to save for the future. They might have a smaller income than the Borrower or Consumer families, but in the long run, they’ll end up with more resources, due to frugal lifestyle habits. They might even carry some debt, but have a plan to address it rather than let it spiral out of control. They tend to never spend more than they take in. They set aside at least 10% of pay and invest it for the future.

Out of the three examples above, who do you think has the most stress? Who do you think might have the most freedom to help out other people?

Sure, the Borrowers might enjoy the most material goods for a brief time. The Consumer family might also be alright, provided they continue working and never have any emergencies. But remember the wisdom from Proverbs 22—the borrower is slave to the lender. Letting debt control your life can lead to unbearable stress. So if you ask me, I think Ken and Kim Keeper would be the best suited to endure life’s ups and downs. They would almost certainly be in the best position to be financially generous to a charitable cause!

As far as faith goes, you may be able to guess where I’m going with this. Extraordinary debt can hinder our ability as disciples of Jesus. If we are so burdened with bills (or worried about providing a roof over our head), chances are we likely aren’t thinking much about helping other people. Hopefully we get to a place where we can wisely manage God’s blessings, as well as share those with other people.

Christianity has a rich history of social justice. Where the church goes, people get lifted up out of poverty. The hungry get fed. And in turn, those people share the good news with others who are impoverished and at the margins. Hopefully we can all work to control debt, and enter into greater financial freedom to be generous with our money to other people. That’s one important way we can spread Jesus’ love.

Here are some helpful resources surrounding budgeting, debt-reduction, and generosity. There’s quite a bit out there on the internet that will cost you money, but if you look diligently, a lot of information can be free:

Previously written blog posts on tithing:

Unanswered Prayers

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We’ve all prayed for something and felt like God didn’t answer it. In the best case scenario, perhaps we gained some wisdom and in retrospect are thankful to God for not “answering” us, given current circumstances.

But prayer and answers from God are often tough issues to face. Consider the example of someone with a cancer diagnosis. She prays for direct healing, but the disease gradually worsens. Treatments don’t work. Things look bleak. Or consider the example of a parent yearning for a child to make the right decisions. He prays to God for guidance and protection for that child, but the young family member makes bad decisions time and time again.

Where is God in unanswered prayers? Is God ignoring us? Is God actually doing anything? Is God testing us?

The answer to these questions is often ambiguous. We don’t always know the mind or actions of God. And I think the answer is a lot more complicated than simple cliche sayings.

Prayer was at the forefront of our sermon yesterday. The blind man seeing trees in Mark 8 shows us the messiness of miracles and healing. Jesus did a “do-over” to fully make things right. Even after the healing, this man would have likely experienced eye trouble in old age, as well as dying a physical death, too.

There are several factors of prayer and divine intervention that may or may not impact your own personal experience with petitioning God. Consider the following…

God is not Santa Claus, and prayer is not a Christmas list

We often think of prayer as simply asking God for things. In reality, prayer is communication with God. Hopefully we learn to praise and thank God, repent of our shortcomings, and also listen to our heavenly parent. I find it helpful to remind myself that while prayer does include asking God for things, petition is only part of that deeper relationship. We should also never treat prayer like witchcraft or spell-casting–saying certain words to create a desired outcome.

Is it God’s will… or my will?

We frequently confuse our personal will and desire with that of God’s. The classic example of this is someone praying to win the lottery. Care to take a wild guess as to whether or not that person is submitting to God’s will? Most likely, s/he is simply wanting to pursue greedy desires to have a lot of money for minimal effort.

Sometimes our prayer life centers upon our will instead of God’s. We want our way. In this regard, remember Jesus’ teaching on prayer with the Lord’s Prayer–thy will be done.

What about human freedom?

God has gifted us with free will. We have the ability to say “no” to God. This is necessary for love to exist–for instance, you cannot coerce or threaten someone to genuinely love you! True love requires the freedom to walk away.

Many times with prayer, we are partly wrestling with the issue of human freedom. Praying for someone to make a good decision? That person bears some responsibility, thanks to human free choice. Sometimes prayer doesn’t turn out the way we want it to because of human-created circumstances. Sure, God could easily “strong arm” our world to submission, but I think God often takes a step back to allow for the potential of love.

Our world is broken

Our world is fallen. It is sinful. Things don’t work out like they should. This is a basic fact of our broken reality. We struggle with sin in personal actions. We also see the effects of sin in the lives of other people, as well as general circumstances in the world around us.

When praying to God, we often face the reality of our broken world. Bodies fall apart and stop working, and our time here on earth eventually comes to an end. As with human free choice, I believe God works within our current circumstance to produce different outcomes.

These are just a few issues to keep in mind as you think about prayer.

I have one final thought to sum up everything: Keep on praying. Just like the blind man in Mark 8, keep on seeking God’s healing. It doesn’t matter what may happen or if you feel “unanswered”… it is imperative to continue that communication with God.

Righteous Anger?

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Is it OK to get angry?

This question might sound somewhat silly. Anger is a fairly common emotion. It comes rather easy for us in most situations! From moody toddlers to self-sufficient adults, people of all ages get upset at either life circumstances or other people.

I think it is still worth wrestling with this question, however, given that our world is often filled with anger to the point of blind, unrelenting rage. Anger is also often connected to violence, whether physical or verbal. We quickly assume our anger is always righteous, but we don’t do a good job of defining either term!

Scripture makes many references to anger, humans, and God quite a number of times. Some of these instances are humans being angry with one another. I think these are likely the least “legitimate” forms of anger, considering that sibling rivalry and other conflict lead to terrible outcomes in scripture, not to mention God is the “missing character” of these tragic tales! Sometimes anger is expressed by humans at circumstance. The Psalms, for all their so-called “devotional” language, are often filled with expressions of anger. And finally, there are many well-known instances of God being angry with humans.

Our sermon on Sunday highlighted a point in Jesus’ ministry where he arguably felt anger–he cursed the fruitless fig tree. Right before this odd episode we read about another case of anger where Jesus also drove out all the corruption in the temple.

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So what should be our “standard” for getting angry? Is it simply a harmless emotion? Or could it be something toxic? Is “righteous anger” even possible?

To narrow down this issue, let’s turn to Ephesians 4:26-27, which states that “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”

When I think about anger and faith, these verses always comes to mind. Paul commands the church of Ephesus that anger does not necessarily lead to sin. Moreover, even when we are angry, we should still not dwell on that emotion–we must literally put it to rest as we end our day! Unexamined anger can actually give Satan a foothold and cause us unthinkable damage.

Here are some general thoughts about what do do with this common emotion…

When you begin to feel anger, ask yourself, “Does it feel like I’m being led into sin?” I think anger would lose its destructive power if we simply examined our emotions.

Anger is often connected with judgment. We as Christians are called to judge things and not people. Judging between right and wrong is better called discernment, and is an important exercise to do throughout your daily walk. On the other hand, judging people is something only God is allowed to do.

I would argue that we can think of anger in a similar manner. It is OK to get angry at things, but to direct our anger at another human, we potentially cross the line. We rush to judgment, rather than seeing that person as a child of God. That person ought to be the object of our love, instead of bitterness.

What might be some things to get angry about? I think Jesus gives us a practical example.

Jesus was angry that God’s temple had been corrupted. Perhaps Christians could learn a thing or two and speak out against greed in our culture. We would much rather place our hope and trust in the almighty dollar, instead of an everlasting relationship with God. That’s definitely something to get “angry” about.

Jesus was also angry with the fig tree’s unfruitfulness. Maybe we ought to be mindful of our own fruitfulness. Anger is a valid thing to feel when considering the fact that our world is broken, but we struggle with being self-centered and being faithless. We also turn to look the other way when someone is in need. Hopefully we cultivate spiritual fruit as Christians.

Remember that it is OK to feel anger… and also remember that we should not let it cause us to sin. Righteous anger is a legitimate part of faith, but we too often let our own anger run wild, without examining our heart.

Lots of Bible Kings!

There are quite a few kings the Old Testament mentions throughout several biblical books. In the midst of long lists, strange stories, and lengthy chapters, however, it is easy to overlook how his history impacted the broader story of scripture. As we explored on Sunday, Josiah was a king with profound impact on Israel… even at 7 years of age!

Kings can be roughly divided up into two categories: The united kingdom and the divided kingdom. To refresh your memory, Israel takes the promised land, and in 1 Samuel the people soon demand a king to rule over them.

For the united kingdom, we have three kings. You’re probably familiar with these well-known biblical characters:

  1. Saul: Some assume Samuel was a king, but rather, he was a prophet who anointed Saul to be king. Saul’s life is basically a tragic story. He starts off very well, and gradually falls away. Eventually he is rejected by God and ends up in a dark place, even consulting witchcraft to try and speak with the dead. Things don’t end well for Saul, and his life is a compelling cautionary tale for us today.
  2. David: Good ol’ king David. David did have his ups and downs, however, and 1-2 Samuel and 1 Kings chronicle his leadership. At best, David was decisive, bold, and strong in how he led others. At times, unfortunately, David was morally compromised and vengeful. Many people tend to glorify David’s kingship, but if you ask me, his life is a bit more nuanced and can still teach us to watch out for sinfulness.
  3. Solomon: 1 Kings recounts Solomon’s time as king for the united country. Traditionally, we attribute books like Proverbs to him, as many believe he showed great wisdom. At the same time, however, many stories in scripture paint Solomon with a much more critical brush. He was open to other religions and one could easily question if his “wisdom” was really put into practice. Solomon’s actions largely contributed to the impending split between north and south.

The “united” kingdom lasted from around 1050-930BC. If we want to get technical, the term united is up for debate. For starters, David and Saul fought against one another in a brutal civil war. Later events also seemed to show that divisions were growing before the split. But nonetheless, this period was marked by relative unity with one seat of power for the nation.

Around 931BC one of Solomon’s sons, Rehoboam, faced a major issue of growing division between the 12 tribes of Israel, specifically taxing the north for royal court purposes. You might remember the number 12–Jacob had 12 sons from where these tribes originate. Rehoboam eventually went to war with them and the kingdom divided into two, the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah).

All in all, Israel had 19 kings and Judah had 20. This period of time from 931-586BC was marked by a lot of turmoil. Some kings were good. Some were downright evil. In a previous sermon a week or so ago, I mentioned that several kings opened up the worship of idols and false gods in the temple. This pagan practice was at times linked to literal child sacrifice.

Israel was conquered by Assyria in 722BC and the people sent into exile. Judah lasted a bit longer, but was conquered by the Babylonians in 586BC. The various prophets of the Old Testament span this period of history, where many were active during Israel or Judah’s decline. Other prophets worked during the period of exile after both kingdoms fell.

I understand this is a lot of information. The bible is absolutely full of a lot of details that can teach us quite a bit. Here is one major point I think this tumultuous history of kings and kingdoms can teach us for today…

Politics do not grant salvation. I do believe that God can work through all things, but it is clear to me given the ups and downs of several centuries of Israel that God aims for something more radical than a political office. In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, God actually describes the perfect leader–someone who avoids violence, impure religion, and greed. Instead of typical “kingly” duties, Israel’s king would study the book of the law (and not turn from it “to the right or to the left” as the author of Deuteronomy put it!).

In other words, God envisioned the perfect priest to lead the people! As Christians, this is why we believe Jesus Christ is so important. Jesus is our only leader. Our allegiance ought to be to him, instead of some political game.

Kings in the Old Testament teach us quite a bit. Some were evil. Others did righteousness. We can all learn a lesson from reading this part of our bibles. And most importantly, we can give thanks to Jesus, our true everlasting king!

The Challenges of Bible Punctuation

You might be familiar with the oddities of the English language in the picture above. Another example I’ve heard of is that there’s a huge difference between, “I like cooking my family and pets,” and “I like cooking, my family, and pets.” Good grammar can save lives!

One unique thing about our bibles is that with ancient manuscripts, we don’t find modern punctuation. Likewise, depending on where you place a comma, period, or question mark, a verse can sound vastly different! Bible translation is often an extremely difficult task. Not only do scholars have to find English equivalents of old words, but they must also organize it into modern-sounding clauses and sentences.

One of my seminary professors put it this way: Every translation is an interpretation.

Interpretation is the act of crafting meaning out of something. We interpret what a painting signifies for a culture. We interpret and process how a song makes us feel. And we definitely interpret the bible, too. Every bible translation out there makes decisions on what particular modern words to use. Every translation structures sentences a certain way, making it readable for us today. Translation always involved some degree of interpretation.

Genesis 22 is a practical example of this abstract idea. Where we place periods and add clarification words can potentially alter the meaning of the biblical text.

Below is a screenshot of an interlinear bible I often use to prepare for sermons. In it, I find the ancient Hebrew (or Greek) words, with rough English equivalents below each word. It sounds rather choppy and disjointed, but this is arguably the best possible “word-for-word” reading you can get based off original manuscripts! Here is Genesis 22:15-17 (Keep in mind Hebrew is read from right to left):

To to simplify the screenshot, these verses literally read:

by Myself I have sworn says Yahweh for on account of which you have done-thing this and not have withheld-your son-only that blessing I will bless you and multiplying I will multiply-your descendants as the stars…

Difficult to understand for us today, right?

As you might guess, modern translations “tidy up” the ancient text a bit and make it flow according to modern languages. Without it, passages would sound very archaic, strange, and confusing! So we add punctuation, switch words around, and even fill in the gaps where there might be an implied word.

In my sermon yesterday, I noted that God did not want Isaac to die. Perhaps God was testing Abraham’s sense of justice and doing what was right. One of the reasons why I think this is a legitimate interpretation is because of what the ancient Hebrew text actually says. To clean up the choppy word-for-word translation from above, regardless of bible translation, there are basically two distinct clauses regarding Abraham:

  1. “I have seen that you have not withheld your son.”
  2. “I will bless you and multiply you…”

In some bible translations, scholars have connected these two ideas–one leads to another. For instance, many translations read: “Because you have not withheld your son, I will bless you…” This reading implies Abraham was rewarded for his supposed “good work” of wanting to sacrifice his son.

But note that the word “because” is not found in the original Hebrew text. In reality, we could just as easily make these two independent sentences. In other words, we could read the passage as: “I have seen that you have not withheld your son. I will bless you and multiply you…” Maybe God is simply describing an observation–Abraham was about to kill his son. Perhaps God’s blessing in Genesis 22 is not contingent upon Abraham’s action with Isaac. Maybe God was just reiterating the original covenant to Abraham. This alternative reading falls in line with what we as Christians believe about God’s grace: God gives it to us regardless of our action… We never “earn” grace ourselves! Despite Abraham’s struggles, God remained faithful to that covenant.

I think it is clear that Abraham struggled with justice–in my sermon I noted Abraham’s tragic episode with Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham did a great job of obeying divine commandments, but he needed to take it a step further and pursue Godliness in his own life. Likewise, I think the interpretation I explored on Sunday can be a unique option to consider.

Bible passages often mean different things for different people. The important thing, however, is that we continue to read the stories of scripture and discuss them with one another. We might disagree on the meaning of something, but God continues to speak to us in the process.

Lot’s Wife

Image result for lots wife cartoon

There are many lessons to be gleaned from Genesis 19. But in the midst if this R-rated passage, there’s another odd detail we did not have time to cover during Sunday morning worship: What on earth was the deal with Lot’s wife?

To refresh your memory of the passage, here is Genesis 19:17, 24-26:

As soon as they had brought them out, one of [the angels] said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”

Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities–and also the vegetation in the land. But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.

Genesis doesn’t explain this random happening any further.

In some Jewish commentaries, we find speculation similar to what you might find in a common study bible from today. Some believe Lot’s wife was named Edith and perhaps this pillar-of-salt end was punishment for disobeying the angel. Perhaps she “missed” life in Sodom and did not fully want to leave it behind. It is impossible to know since we don’t hear the story from her perspective. John Wesley had a commentary on the bible, and here are some of his thoughts in line with this possible interpretation:

But his wife looked back from behind him – Herein she disobeyed an express command. Probably she hankered after her house and goods in Sodom, and was loath to leave them… she too much regarded her stuff.

Wesley agreed with this Jewish interpretation of the text, that Lot’s wife hesitated about salvation. She “looked back”, perhaps longing to return to the city of Sodom. It is not enough to simply say to others that you will follow God. What matters is following through on that promise.

Another option was that she died simply because she saw God Godself. This interpretation would be fitting with priestly and temple traditions of biblical books like Exodus. For instance, Moses could only see God’s backside, and in another strange episode, appeared to be “radioactive” after speaking with God!

And yet another option might be the sin of voyeurism–that is, deriving pleasure by witnessing the pain of others. Perhaps she had heard the cries of the dying and wanted to see the destruction for herself. This is definitely an important lesson for us to grapple with today, consider how we find entertainment in fictional and actual violence. Oftentimes we tragically gain pleasure by seeing others suffer, and this is most certainly a sin.

As you can see, there is quite a bit of speculation about Lot’s wife and the lesson behind it. Jesus does make mention of her in Luke 17:32-33:

Remember Lot’s wife. Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.

Luke 17 gives us a reminder that it is futile to try to predict or control the future. Jesus tells us it is better to simply follow Christ and seek God’s kingdom instead of worrying about life right now! Jesus appears to hint that Lot’s wife’s problem was pursuing security instead of placing trust in God.

Regardless of how you interpret this detail of the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative, I think the point is clear to keep your eyes fixed on God and away from sin. Consider this well-known verse from Hebrews 12:1-2, which I believe captures this idea perfectly:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.